- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2011

LONDON — Lionel Messi’s future in soccer appears as limitless as his imaginative playmaking.

The Argentine orchestrated Barcelona’s demolition of Manchester United in the ChampionsLeague final to cap a staggering 53-goal season and likely secure a third straight FIFA world player of the year award.

Incredibly, he is just 23 years old and could have another decade at the top.

Messi’s tally of one goal and an assist in Saturday’s 3-1 win hardly reflected his impact at Wembley. The diminutive No. 10 outwitted opponents to find and create space throughout the game, making a defense that reached the final without conceding an away goal look second rate.

Even on a team full of World Cup winners and European champions, Messi stood out.

United manager Alex Ferguson calls Barcelona the best team he has come up against in almost four decades of coaching, and Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola says Messi is the key.

“We have good players in the team, but he makes the difference,” Guardiola said. “We can compete, but without him we would not have that qualitative leap that we do have with him.

“We have hard work, we have talent; we’ve used tactics and we’ve tried to put players at their ease. But Messi is unique, he is a one-off.”

The challenge facing Guardiola and Barcelona is to keep things that way.

Diego Maradona liked partying, while George Best and Paul Gascoigne loved a drink. Johan Cruyff was prone to picking fights with authority, even missing out on a World Cup final because of it.

Soccer history is littered with examples of players failing to live up the their potential because of off-field distractions.

“I hope he doesn’t get fed up, and I hope he will continue being at his ease and being at the club with the players around him,” Guardiola said. “When he doesn’t play well, it’s because something is wrong with his environment, with his surroundings.

“So let’s hope that everything continues to go well in his personal life and that the club is intelligent to put together the kind of team he needs to have around him.”

Thankfully for Guardiola and Barcelona, the quiet, dedicated and modest Messi does not look like a man about to go off the rails.

“To be the man of the match is the least important thing, because it was incredible how we played,” Messi said. “We were very good in all areas.”

The last player to spark comparisons with all-time greats such as Pele, Maradona and Cruyff at such a young age was Brazil’s Ronaldo, who at 21 became the first player to win FIFA’s world award for two straight years.

But his career is another example of how things don’t always go according to plan.

The striker was on course for a stellar future after his bulk, height, pace and power brought him a scarcely believable 76 goals in 83 games for PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona.

Instead, knee injuries and weight problems wrecked what looked to be the boundless potential he showed in the mid-‘90s, with a third title and a World Cup winner’s medal in 2002 a poor return for such a gifted player.

Meanwhile, the way in which defenders in Italy’s Serie A wrecked the ankles of Netherlands striker Marco van Basten shows how cynicism can stymie natural talent.

With his reliance on technique and the avoidance of contact, Messi would appear to be less vulnerable than Ronaldo to such damaging injuries. And referees are now tougher on reckless tackles, so can offer Messi more protection than that afforded AC Milan’s Van Basten in the early ‘90s.

That can only be for the good of all those who love soccer.

“He is the No. 1, he makes the difference,” Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez said. “He is just the best player in the world.”

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